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Living With A Disability: How to Support Independence for Teens with Disabilities

Progressing through teenage development can pose greater challenges for teens and families with disabilities. Typical adolescence involves developing a sense of identity, establishing relationships and gaining autonomy and independence. Appearance, medical conditions, physical and learning disabilities in teens may make them feel different from their peers. They may struggle to develop a sense of self that accepts these differences.

How can self-acceptance be reached, and how should a family and others in the community help make that happen?

Independence 

Teenagers with disabilities struggle with gaining independence. They may wish to become independent but practically still require adult assistance. Also, parents may have conflicting emotions. While they want their teens to achieve the adolescent milestones that lead to independence, they may be fearful that their teen cannot master tasks, such as driving or finding a job.

Sometimes limited access for teens with physical handicaps can decrease opportunities in the community, like transportation, lack of accommodations for mobility, or lack of access for other functional needs.

Parents can help foster independence by advocating for access and teaching teens to advocate for themselves.

Parents also need to help establish realistic expectations. If parents are unsure whether their teen can master age-appropriate tasks, professionals can evaluate and help outline steps to move toward independence or suggest appropriate accommodations.

Confidence and Acceptance

In general, teens have a difficult time appreciating differences as the special characteristics that make each person unique. For teenagers with disabilities, accepting their differences can be much more complicated. However, acceptance can be achieved. But, the confidence and acceptance of a disability may falter as teens encounter new situations that challenge their self-concepts.

Self-acceptance may be complicated, but acceptance by others can be more problematic.

Teens with disabilities want to develop relationships outside of the family, but they may struggle to find a social group that will accept their differences. They desire acceptance and do not want to feel that they are being judged negatively. Research suggests that teens with disabilities may experience more teasing or bullying.

People who touch the lives of teens with disabilities can help them reach their potential. Yet, to support and protect all of our children, communities must first teach tolerance. Adults and teens without disabilities must learn not to make quick judgments when they see other people who look, act, or learn differently. Additionally, adults and bystanders should be taught to intervene when they see teens picking on someone who is different.

Adults and teens without disabilities can feel uncertain and uncomfortable about interacting with a teen with disabilities. Some people ignore the teen, while others stare and make the teen feel embarrassed. For those who just don’t know how to behave, here are some suggestions:

  1. Make eye contact at the person’s level, and speak directly to the person in a normal tone of voice, without drawing attention to any unusual behavior.
  2. Show interest in the person rather than the behaviors or signs of disability.
  3. Take your lead from the person about whether they want to talk about the disability, especially with someone you do not know well.
  4. Offer to help if you see a need, but always ask first and wait for a response before jumping in.

Adults and teens without disabilities should spend time with teens with disabilities to increase their comfort level with the interaction. Include school peers in your activities. Volunteer your time with organizations that work with teens with disabilities.

Parents of children with disabilities have the same goals for their children—to raise happy, well-adjusted independent adults who realize their potential.